This is the text of an article I published today in the Yorkshire Post marking the eightieth anniversary of the abdication of King Edward VIII:

It is not every day that a Church of England bishop sparks a constitutional crisis. Especially not a Yorkshire bishop. But, that is exactly what happened eighty years ago on 1 December 1936.

The then Bishop of Bradford, Dr Alfred Blunt, delivered a carefully prepared speech to the Bradford Diocesan Conference (today it would be to the diocesan Synod) in which he referred rather pointedly to the rather deficient piety of the soon-to-be crowned King Edward VIII. However, to understand the speech, it is first necessary to know something about the context in which it was delivered.

Edward was not known to be a regular worshipper. Furthermore, his romantic interest in American divorcee Wallis Simpson was causing some scandal around the Commonwealth. The British press had decided not to report the disreputable stories, but the media around the wider Commonwealth did not feel bound to be so morally scrupulous. What was widely known and commented on around the world was largely muted in Britain itself. A self-imposed censorship – unimaginable in today's UK media world – created some space for waiting to see what would happen … at the same time as frustrating the gossips.

And this is where Bishop Blunt came in. In his speech to his Diocesan Conference he drew attention to the imminent coronation of the new monarch, but exhorted him to spend more time more consistently in church. In itself this was unremarkable – after all, the king would also become the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and could, therefore, reasonably be expected to show a little more conviction. His speech was a defence of the coronation as a sacramental act.

But, the bishop then said this: “The benefit of the King’s coronation depends upon… the faith, prayer and self-dedication of the King himself; and on that it would be improper of me to say anything except to commend him to God’s grace, which he will so abundantly need, as we all need it – for the King is a man like ourselves – if he is to do his duty faithfully. We hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.”

It is not clear whether he intended this to question Edward’s love life, but the ambiguity of his language allowed those so inclined to see it as a sanction to question his morality. Debate has continued through the years since Bishop Blunt gave this speech.

How do I know this? I have the original text of his speech, complete with pencil-written annotations, in my office. In fact, I have his entire set of speeches in a box in my filing room. Furthermore, I also have a box of the correspondence he then received as a result of his speech.

Coming from all around the world, many letters praised the bishop for having the courage to speak about a scandal that was being hushed up in the press. At last, they said, someone is telling the truth and upholding moral propriety in the face of such public scandal. Others, however, berated the bishop for being such a prig and for behaving in such a moralistic and vindictive manner.

These letters are mostly handwritten in beautiful English. One of the most striking is typewritten by a lawyer at Gray’s Inn in London and condemns the bishop for his “most contumacious and impudent pronouncement,” referring later to “the sole and arrogant opinion of the (for the time being) Bishop of Bradford.” One is addressed to “You worm…” Another complains about “gross interference in his private affairs by the traditionally stupid forces of orthodoxy and stagnation,” concluding “This is 1936, not the Dark Ages.”

If anyone tries to tell you that Internet trolling is a new phenomenon, point them to these letters. They are fewer, took longer to write and send, and are written mostly in excellent and elegant grammatical English. But, they are equally intended to challenge, belittle, ridicule or encourage the man at the centre, who probably had little clue what was going on.

The question is: did Bishop Blunt intend to say what he was taken to have said? In other words, did he intend to provoke the debate that led to Edward abdicating, George VI acceding and, eventually, Elizabeth II being crowned. Or was it a case of the bishop making a comment – almost as an aside – only to find that his words had become incendiary in the wider world, rather than merely mutedly critical for the benefit of a particular audience?

The rest is history. Edward married Wallis Simpson, they flirted with Adolf Hitler, and then lived the rest of their life away from the public glare of a prurient England. Elizabeth began what has become the longest reign of any monarch, serving both Church, nation and Commonwealth with a diligence and fidelity that commands the respect of even the most republican observers. And during her reign the world and the Church have changed. Modern media have changed the relationship between the Royals and the people, and the line between public and private has been blurred beyond recognition.

The world has changed. Human inconsistency and frailty have not changed. The public still love scandal, and elements of the media feed it. The Church is probably less moralistic.

What will happen next time we await a coronation? Who knows? Perhaps there will be a less blunt questioning of morals and motives. We shall see.

 

This morning the new Bishops of Bradford and Huddersfield were consecrated (not ‘concentrated’, as someone put it in a prayer last week) at York Minster. The immediate reports and photos can be seen here.

This completes the episcopal team for the new Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales (not “Daleks’, as someone printed it recently). The new bishops, Toby Howarth and Jonathan Gibbs will start on 1 December, but might make appearances before then.wpid-Photo-20140709193123.jpg

This is the latest and very important step in shaping the new diocese. We face significant challenges, but fantastic opportunities. The new bishops will find a great openness in the diocese to new ways of doing things. They will also be able to put immediate energy into encouraging, nurturing, challenging and shaping. They will also need to learn the patch and the people – without buying in to all the myths that grow around the church and the way it does its business.

Of course, this is all happening against a backdrop of economic challenge at home and serious international challenge away. It is an exciting and demanding time to take on episcopal ministry and leadership.

Anyway, back to concentrating on the Daleks for this evening…

It's a bit like the London buses: you wait for long enough and two come along at once.

Downing Street has today announced the appointment of two Area Bishops for the newly created Diocese of West Yorkshire & the Dales of which I am the Diocesan Bishop.

The Revd Dr Toby Howarth, currently Secretary for Inter Religious Affairs to the Archbishop of Canterbury and National Inter Religious Affairs Adviser for the Church of England will be the Bishop of Bradford.

The Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs, currently Rector of Heswall in the Diocese of Chester, will be the first ever Bishop of Huddersfield. This is a new bishopric covering the local authority areas of Calderdale and Kirklees and is one of five areas in the diocese, which each have their own bishop.

We launched the new bishops on a footbridge at Leeds station before they went their ways to their new episcopal areas for meetings with key people from church and society. Which, on reflection, is a great metaphor for what the church is about: stuck in the middle of a public space where people pass by, some paying attention and others not, and glancing off people – whoever they are and wherever they come from.

I am delighted with these appointments which complete our team of bishops. They bring wide experience, great expertise and substantial gifts to our leadership and ministry as we build the new diocese. Both will bring important outside perspectives to this complex task and help bring bishops closer to the ground in parishes and local communities.

Toby Howarth brings expertise in teaching, pastoral care, leadership and interfaith relations at parish, national and international level. This is an important appointment for the Church of England and for Bradford where he will serve as Area Bishop.

Jonathan Gibbs brings to this new office wide experience at parish, diocesan, national and international level. He has been a committed parish priest and has served in a variety of contexts. His appointment is hugely welcome as he establishes the new episcopal area of Huddersfield.

Toby Howarth and Jonathan Gibbs will both be consecrated as bishops in a service at York Minster on Friday 17th October at 11am, conducted by the Archbishop of York.

Here are the brief biographical statements from the diocesan press notice:

The Revd Dr Jonathan Gibbs (aged 53), has been Rector of Heswall in the Diocese of Chester for the last 16 years. Before that he was Chaplain at Basle with Freiburg-im-Breisgau, in the Diocese of Europe from 1992-98.

Jonathan says: “I am delighted to be coming to Yorkshire and to be joining the new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales at this exciting time. Toni and I are thrilled to be moving to such a great part of the world, with a wealth of culture in its towns and cities as well as beautiful villages and countryside. I am looking forward to working with the other members of the Diocesan team to build up the life of our churches both numerically and spiritually and to contributing to the life of the rich and diverse community in West Yorkshire. I am also very partial to a pint of Timothy Taylor’s “Landlord” and am looking forward to getting to know some more of the local brews!”

Jonathan takes an active role in the Church of England on diocesan, national and international levels: he has been Chair of the House of Clergy in the Diocese of Chester since 2006 and Chair of the Diocesan Clergy Chairs Forum since 2011. He is a member of General Synod, of the Meissen Commission (which links the C of E with the Evangelical Church in Germany), and of the Clergy Discipline Commission. He has also represented the General Synod on the Council of British Funeral Services and the Churches’ Funerals Group, focusing on the importance of clergy working flexibly and creatively to support grieving families.

After gaining an MA in Philosophy and Politics from Jesus College, Oxford, he went on to train for the ministry at Ridley Hall in Cambridge, where he also completed a PhD in Theology at Jesus College. He served his curacy in the Diocese of Chester at Stalybridge Holy Trinity and Christ Church (1989-92).

Jonathan is married to Toni who with others set up the Besom charity on the Wirral, which provides a bridge between those who want to give time, money, things or skills and those who are in need, working with over 40 agencies in the statutory and voluntary sectors. They have three children, Harriet (24) who is married to Matthew Curry, Edward (21) and Thomas (18).

Jonathan’s interests include walking, usually accompanied by their Cocker Spaniel, and rummaging in second-hand bookshops. He is fluent in German, Swiss-German and French and he and Toni have a love of France (where they first met). Jonathan is also a member of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) and the Campaign for Real Ale (CAMRA), and is committed to supporting village and community life. As members of the National Trust and English Heritage, they are looking forward to visiting many of Yorkshire’s historic properties.

The Revd Dr Toby Howarth (aged 52), has served as a parish priest, taught and studied in several areas with a variety of different faiths and cultures before working with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Church of England nationally in inter faith relations.

Toby says, “It is a great joy to have been appointed as the new Area Bishop of Bradford. The role has no shortage of opportunities and challenges. I am very much looking forward to working with clergy, congregations and ecumenical partners in the diversity of the city itself, the surrounding towns and rural areas. I am also looking forward to engaging with the communities of which our churches are a part, and building relationships with those involved in the range of civic, statutory and community organisations which make up this vibrant metropolitan district. The Church of England has been bold in creating the new Diocese of West Yorkshire and the Dales, and it will be exciting to work with Bishop Nick Baines and the diocesan leadership team in developing structures that will better enable local churches to flourish and to serve their communities. I want to pray, to look and listen for what God is doing here so that I can join in and take my part.”

After graduating from Yale University in the US, Toby returned to the UK to work as a research assistant and postman before training for ordination in Birmingham, Oxford and Uganda. He was ordained in 1992 and served his curacy in Derby before moving to India with Henriette, his wife, who is from the Netherlands. There they joined the Henry Martyn Institute for Reconciliation and Inter Faith Relations in Hyderabad where he researched for a PhD in Islamic preaching from the Free University of Amsterdam while Henriette taught at a local theological college. In 2000 they moved with their two Indian-born daughters to the Netherlands, where Toby worked as an Evangelist at the Netherlands Reformed ‘Pilgrim Fathers Church’ in Rotterdam. Two years and another daughter later, they moved again, to Birmingham, where Toby became Tutor and then Vice Principal at Crowther Hall, the CMS Training College at Selly Oak, and Henriette was ordained in the Diocese. From 2004 to 2011 Toby was Priest-in-Charge at Springfield, a multi-cultural parish in the South East of the city. From 2005 he served also as Inter Faith Advisor to the Bishop of Birmingham before moving to London to take up his role with the Archbishop of Canterbury in 2011.

As well as helping to develop the church’s relationships and formal dialogue with other religious leaders on issues from global trafficking to religious freedom, Toby has also had responsibility for the Church of England’s ‘Presence and Engagement’ programme (www.presenceandengagement.org) that seeks to encourage dioceses and churches to reach out to and work with people and communities of different faiths. This is led by a national Task Group chaired by the Rt Revd Tony Robinson, now Bishop of Wakefield, and includes several people from West Yorkshire. Toby’s believes strongly that wherever the Church is, Jesus calls it to become a community that lives out his love and compassion.

Toby and Henriette have three daughters: Franciska (17), Lucy (15) and Tamar (12). They enjoy London and being a part of their local community of Peckham, and as a family they are actively involved in their local church. Whenever they can, they like travelling together, particularly linking up with friends across Britain, Europe and further away. On a day off or holiday, Toby enjoys visiting a museum or gallery, reading a novel, playing music, camping or going for a bird-watching walk or cycle ride.

Onward and upward!

 

This morning my office was emptied and sent to the new office in Leeds where it will open for business on 30 April.

As the last bits were being loaded we came across three boxes containing the manuscripts of Bishop Blunt's sermons (he was the second Bishop of Bradford – from 1931-55), the original texts of his Presidential Addresses to the Bradford Diocesan Conference, and an envelope containing the correspondence he received following the address that sparked the abdication crisis in December 1936. It will need to be properly archived (once I have found out to whom they legally belong and to whom they should be disposed).

Clearly, people were as horrible then as they can be now. The internet has speeded up the pace at which vitriol can be sent, but the green ink letters I read this afternoon also betray bile and venom – albeit in beautiful and elegant English.

The abdication crisis was provoked by Bishop Blunt – in the context of asserting everybody's need of God's grace, but aware of the gossip about the King's relationship with Mrs Simpson (although he denied knowing and said he had been referring to the king' slack of churchgoing) – adding one sentence:

… if he is to do his duty faithfully, we hope that he is aware of his need. Some of us wish that he gave more positive signs of such awareness.

This sentence was picked up by the media and the scandal erupted. The rest is history.

 

Reorganisation of dioceses in the Church of England doesn’t sound like the sexiest of subjects, does it? Especially in a week that has seen the slaughter of so many young people in Norway and the tragic death of Amy Winehouse – to say nothing of impending economic meltdown in the USA and the continuing grief in the financial markets.

But, even diocesan reorganisation represents the continuing of ordinary life in the face of ‘big’ and mortality-reminding events in the wider world.

And that is actually the point of the proposed reorganisation of the West Yorkshire dioceses (Ripon & Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield): it is about enabling the church better to relate to and reach out to the communities of these areas. Contrary to the rather lazy (and oft-repeated without critical thought) assumption that this proposal has arisen from either (a) financial decline or (b) numerical decline, the proposal to dissolve (not ‘abolish’) three dioceses and create a single larger diocese with an internal ‘episcopal area’ system is born of a desire to do our ministry and mission better and more effectively. There might be savings and consolidations eventually, but this is not driven by finance or staffing.

So, where are we now that the Dioceses Commission has issued an interim report today? Well, we are simply where we are. The interim report does not address the big questions of (a) the name of the new diocese, (b) the status of the cathedrals, (c) the precise location of the episcopal areas or whether the Diocesan Bishop should have one, and (c) where the diocese will be ‘based’ (in terms of location of central administration. All that is still to come. Today’s document states the response of the Commission to the responses it received following the original proposals last December… in respect to the potential moving or certain border parishes from one diocese to another.

The Commission will now draft a Scheme (a formal proposal) which will come to us in the autumn and initiate a six month period of formal debate and decision making. The Commission will then consider the outcomes of this formal consultation in the three dioceses before then deciding whether to amend the Scheme before sending it to the General Synod for final decision. In other words, what we have now is the second word in a multi-stage consultation/conversation – not the final word. So, if any reporting suggests that ‘the Church of England is to abolish’ dioceses, they are spouting rubbish.

There also seems to be an assumption that I will be the Diocesan Bishop of the new diocese if and when it is created. That also is nonsense. The posts of the three current Diocesan Bishops will be dissolved, the Bishops of Wakefield and Ripon & Leeds will retire, and I will look for another post. The church might ask me to do another episcopal job or it might not (or I might not feel it right to do so). So, I will happily look at all options and not worry about it. But, it would be helpful if people stopped assuming I will be the bishop of the new diocese as the only certainty for me is that the success of the Scheme will see the end of my See. And that’s fine. Our job is to do the best for the Church in order that we can best serve the people and communities of our country.

So there. It’s not boring, is it? The Church hasn’t really done this before. It is interesting, challenging and potentially exciting. An ‘area system’ would bring Area Bishops closer to the ‘ground’ than a Diocesan Bishop can currently be, and would give places like Bradford two bishops for the price of one: an Area Bishop devoted to the Episcopal Area and a Diocesan Bishop representing Bradford also.

Yes, there are details to be hammered out and there will be losses as well as gain. It might not even go through in the end. But, whatever eventual decision emerges must be rooted in vision, courage, faith and adventure.